Wheel alignment

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Why do we ride motorcycles???

The Blackbird with central north island volcanoes in the background

I've been passionate about bikes since I was 5.  Sure, I love other stuff too like sailing and fishing but passionate is stretching it a bit for all but bikes. Other interests have come and gone but the one constant is motorcycles.  This needs a bit of thinking about...

What follows is a collection of personal thoughts which probably account for the majority of reasons why I ride. Feedback from others who read this will probably reveal a few more. I’ve also come to the conclusion that "WHY” is a moving target and changes as you rack up the years on two wheels. (Note that the word “maturity” has been carefully avoided!) At the end of the day, the “WHY” is nowhere near as important as the fact that we actually DO ride, but it’s fun thinking about it!

Writing this is really difficult, at least to make some sense out of all the things which contribute to a love of two wheels. Perhaps a love of bikes is an unquantifiable sum of a whole load of things which affect the head and heart, rather than being able to boil it down with mathematical precision. And if it’s so hard to quantify, is that really such a bad thing?

I’m inclined to think that there a number of “core” factors which everyone who rides would agree on as being central with respect to why they ride. There are others which will depend on the individual and how long they’ve been riding and what experiences they’ve gone through. As mentioned previously, this means that the “why” will change over time. By way of example, it’s almost as if to become a more complete rider, it’s necessary to pass through the “Ride like a twat” phase first, and even re-visiting various stages from time to time! (But as a friend put it with his tongue half in his cheek - with the confidence and authority which a mature rider brings to such behaviour!)

Is it a particular type of person who has a lifelong attachment to bikes? Do bikes help to shape a persons’ character? Perhaps it’s a combination of both.  Anyway, on to some of the thinking behind the things I’ve identified as to why I ride, not in any particular order of importance. It’s a purely personal viewpoint but sure that other riders will understand my feelings. Would love to hear your comments!

For me, a bike is not a means of transport as such. It’s a means of undertaking journeys, which is a whole lot different than merely travelling from A to B. It almost falls into the area of spirituality. It would be rare to complete a trip in a car and feel uplifted from the trip itself.

Awareness of surroundings. I love the heightened perspective that riding a bike gives in comparison with driving a car. Almost subconsciously noting potential hazards through both visual cues and smells, getting feedback from the road surface, all leading to a greater awareness and appreciation of your surroundings.You feel alive, intimately involved in the journey. Although I love music in the car, I don't wear an iPod on the bike so perhaps with everything else that's going on is more than enough for me.

Risk, challenge, excitement. Few would disagree that riding a bike exposes you to more risk than a car but isn’t living with risk and overcoming it part of the appeal? In today’s largely predictable, politically correct and over-regulated world, isn’t risk, challenge and excitement a worthwhile antidote? Do bike riders possess more of the “pioneer spirit”, enthusiasm and drive which helped shape our cultures than the average person? I’d certainly like to think so.

On your own, but not alone. Whether riding solo or in a bunch, there is always an opportunity to have your own thoughts / headspace. I’m equally at home riding either solo or in a group of people I trust implicitly although the type of satisfaction you get from solo or group riding is often quite different. Most importantly, I’ve never felt bored on even the most mundane of journeys whilst riding a motorcycle – there’s still more than enough to fill the senses!

Camaraderie. Pull into a remote stopping point to find another biker already there will almost always result in a conversation being struck up, irrespective of the type of bike being ridden or any other differences. The same applies to finding another biker in trouble when assistance is given without question. This bond is yet another indicator that riding a bike is special, and has little to do with simply getting from A to B.

Being able to blend rider and machine into one entity on a journey is always hugely satisfying, but why is it sometimes so difficult to achieve? Occasionally, I set out on a ride with great enthusiasm, only to completely stuff up everything I do and not feel in proper control of the bike or aware of the surrounding conditions. On other occasions, I can set off feeling completely out of sorts; yet have a blinder of ride. Why is that??

“Zen state” riding. All too rare for me unfortunately! This is my pet name for one of those magical rides when you are in perfect harmony with the bike and prevailing conditions. Riding fast and smoothly almost seems to be performed at a subconscious level with minimal effort, leaving you time for other thoughts. One of the most wonderful sensations possible covered in a simple paragraph. Hardly seems right somehow but how do you adequately describe such a sublime feeling? The trick for me is to try and increase the percentage of rides when I can slip into this state. I suspect that starting a ride gently and not forcing it is one way of slipping into good subconscious control.

Precision riding. This describes the absolute pleasure gained from riding a bike close to its optimum performance for a given set of road conditions. This can be as simple as executing a perfect passing manoeuvre, or getting through a set of bends with minimal effort through good positioning. It’s not just about knowing your machine, but reading the local conditions. I once had a conversation about reading road conditions with two workmates who drive cars. I mentioned using the Vanishing Point on blind bends to judge safe cornering speed and all I got was blank looks. There is little doubt that riding a bike makes you a better driver overall.

Developing better skills. My perception is that most drivers who only own cars tend to think that after passing their test, they are then equipped with an adequate set of skills for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, bike riders in general appear to be more aware of their limitations and are continually trying to enhance their abilities. I’m sure that this is why so many of us beat ourselves up when we do something stupid resulting from momentary inattention. I mentioned in an earlier post that it wasn’t long after I bought a Honda Blackbird that I realised that there was the potential to do serious damage to myself if I got carried away, not to mention terminal damage to my wallet. I decided to put myself through an advanced road riding course which was humbling in terms of ego damage but fantastic in terms of outcome. There is no such thing as having “adequate” road skills. You never stop learning.  I found a video a while back which covers situational awareness brilliantly.  Doubtful whether many pure car owners would "get it" without a decent discussion though, much less finding it useful.  Anyway, here it is: Situational Awareness and Other Skills

Overcoming challenging conditions. This is closely allied to developing better skills but there’s much more to it. My personal belief is that stepping outside your comfort zone is a means of growing as a person. Stepping outside your comfort zone on a bike is a rapid means of growing as a rider. I’ve never particularly liked riding in the rain for its own sake, but have tried to get out in wet conditions on a reasonably regular basis. I'm  still ambivalent about riding in the wet, but think I’m more complete rider for having done so. In a similar vein, taking part in several endurance road rides previously mentioned have also been extremely challenging, as much for the mental aspects of those rides as the actual conditions encountered. They have certainly demonstrated that mental state is more important than the ability to ride fast in short bursts. Ask the people who didn’t finish these rides due to losing the battle with their own mind when things got tough. Another fantastic means of gaining skills and confidence in a short space of time.
Bottom of south island - 4000km in 5 days required to complete the Southern Cross endurance ride

This is a catch-all section for the bits and pieces that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. Above all else, motorcycling is huge FUN and there’s plenty of room for the less deep aspects of riding a bike!

Knowing that you can blitz virtually anything on the road. Let’s face it, top speed is largely academic in most conditions, so it’s acceleration which is important in the real world. Most bikes will out-accelerate all but a handful of cars and there is joy in taking on a car driver who doesn’t recognise this. Not merely passing, but utterly annihilating their aspirations is way cool! It’s even cooler to do it to an expensive performance car as opposed to a “boy racer” type vehicle. It’s also super-cool to elect not to engage in combat, content with the knowledge that there’s no need to prove anything to anyone. This latter option calls for considerable restraint but attract points in the afterlife!

Pose value. And why shouldn’t you feel good about people admiring your machine and your good self sitting on it? Everyone likes their ego stroked occasionally! Pose value also occurs in traffic when a car driver has done something stupid and you’re able to gaze through their window with a tinted visor and watch them fail to make eye contact. Lovely!!!

Less affected by traffic. It’s such a simple and obvious thing, but one of the real pleasures of riding a bike is the ability to get through traffic with only minimal holdups. I suppose it boils down to that “freedom” thing again, the ability for you to call the shots rather than having them imposed on you by others. Riding a bike has really heightened my dislike of being stuck in traffic when driving a car.

Well there we are..... a heap of musings about why I still ride a bike. It’s been fun doing it as well as discovering a few things that I hadn’t really thought about in much depth. It's interesting that riding a motorcycle, sailing a yacht and flying an aircraft require almost identical skill sets and also give similar feelings about why we do it.  If you read any of Richard Bach's books, you're left in no doubt that his wonderful prose was greatly influenced by his flying experiences.

As a parting shot, one definition of the word SYNERGY is “The effect of two or more agents working together to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts”. I’m not saying that why any of us ride is because of synergy, but it’s irrefutable that riding a bike gives far more pleasure than the individual sum of all the reasons listed here.



  1. Well said. Like you I long for those Zen state moments when "you and the bike are one" becomes not a cliche but reality. Few and far between they are, but they remain the grail of a good ride in my opinion, the spiritual high if you will.

  2. But why are those exquisite Zen rides sooo unpredictable? You go out feelin' cool and up for it, and ride like you've got PMT. Clearly a girlie observation here.

  3. I have another one for you too.
    Best de-stressing tool ever invented.
    You can drive a car on autopilot, get from A to B without any real awareness for how you got there. But you apply yourself to the bike, the road and all your surroundings.
    Result is that everything else pales into insignificance, you and the bike and the road are all that your head needs so all the dross of the day is gone.
    Should be available on blooming prescription!

  4. Great description of why you/we/I ride. As a footnote to your 'Zen State', do you remember an old camera ad from the '70s which showed well-used Pentax cameras owned by famous photographers, and the strapline "Your Pentax becomes a part of you"? It often comes to mind on a long ride, when I'm beginning to feel 'at one with the machine'.

  5. Hi Simon and thanks! I may have emigrated by the time that advert came out as I don't remember it. I had a Practica Nova by Pentacon at that time which still hides in a cupboard somewhere!

    All the very best,


  6. Well said. I can only second that. Cheers from Calgary, Alberta, Canada

  7. You are spot-on. Take a journey in a car from point A to point B, and all you are thinking about is getting to point B and what time you will arrive at point B. But on a bike you don't care for the why's and wherefore's. Time doesn't matter on a bike nor does the end destination figure in your thoughts. I was told by my instructor, when I took bike lessons; "Once you have passed, every road, even ones you use every day will feel completely different on a bike". And he was right, some of my favourite roads on a bike are driven in a fugue when in a car. This is why I ride bikes, It's like a Sci-Fi theme, biking is like a different dimension which slots in alongside your "normal" existence and allows you to experience life from another perspective.

  8. I can only echo your sentiments. Totally accurate and insightful. When I got back into biking after a long break I had more bad sessions than good. Still enjoyed every one of them!

  9. Thanks SB! Any day on a bike is a good day. The bad days are good if something can be learned from them!